World of the Sages: New acquisitions

To consider a list of items that justify pronouncing the blessing, we should first explore the reason for saying 'sheheheyanu.'

Our sages tell us that if someone builds a new house or purchases new items, the sheheheyanu blessing should be recited: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has kept us alive (sheheheyanu), sustained us and brought us to this time" (M. Brachot 9:3). Over what type of new items should the benediction be pronounced? A new spoon? A new dinner set? A new bicycle? What about used, second-hand goods, do they warrant a sheheheyanu? Our sages employ the term keilim for new items, a word that bears different meanings. It could be referring to utensils, or perhaps clothing. To consider a list of items that justify pronouncing the blessing, we should first explore the reason for saying sheheheyanu: Is the blessing a function of the cost of the new acquisition? Or perhaps the blessing depends on the subjective value of the item to the owner? Maybe the blessing is not connected to the person acquiring the article; rather the benediction is an acknowledgment of a new utensil made available for human use? Halachic authorities explained that the sheheheyanu is a personal expression of joy. Indeed, the wording of the blessing focuses on the subjective viewpoint of the community reciting the benediction: "...who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time." Thus sheheheyanu is defined by individual feelings of happiness. Cost of the item should not be the major consideration; rather heartfelt pleasure over the new acquisition is the defining factor in considering whether the blessing should be pronounced. The list of items that warrant a sheheheyanu, therefore, would include clothing, utensils and even books (Radbaz, 16th century, Spain-Safed-Fez-Cairo-Safed). Given this reason for the benediction, we can understand over what items it should be recited: Any item that causes a person to feel joy and happiness. Some medieval commentators therefore ruled that everyday items - such as new undershirt - do not warrant a sheheheyanu, for a person does not get so excited over the acquisition of underwear or the like; the purchase must be as significant as new house to call for a sheheheyanu. In contrast, buying fancy new clothes would call for the recitation (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Other commentators responded, focusing on the subjective parameters of the blessing: Since sheheheyanu is dependent on the feelings of the person, if the person is overjoyed at a new undershirt - as a person of little means might be - then the benediction should be recited (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain). One halachist - reflecting the reality of his time period - added that buying a new horse to ride on or a new milk cow, justifies a sheheheyanu. The reason that people did not recite the blessing in these cases, he explained, was that they were pessimistically afraid lest the animal die in the near future and the blessing would have been pronounced for naught as no benefit had been derived from the new acquisition (Rabbi Avraham David Wurmann of Buczacz, 18th-19th centuries). Following in this vein, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, New York) indicated that the blessing should appropriately be pronounced when purchasing a new car. The Talmud rules that even if the person purchasing the new item has a similar vessel already in his possession, the blessing may nevertheless be recited provided the acquisition of the new asset brings joy (B. Brachot 59a-60b). Moreover, the "new" utensils need not be brand new; even used items that bring joy to their new owner warrant the benediction (Y. Brachot 14a). Similarly, a house need not be built from scratch to justify the blessing; even a renovation to an existing house, making the structure more spacious or comfortable would deserve a sheheheyanu. (Rabbi Avraham David Wurmann of Buczacz). Once again we see that the parameters of the blessing are subjectively dependent on the outlook of the one acquiring the new item. Codifiers discuss whether shoes are sufficiently important to warrant the blessing. Some say that shoes are like any other garment - if they provide significant joy they justify the benediction. Others suggest that shoes being worn on the feet never reach that status and hence never warrant a sheheheyanu (Shulhan Aruch and Rema OH 223:6). At what stage of acquiring the item should the blessing be recited? Since the blessing is recited over heartfelt joy, we should ask: When does a person feel a sense of happiness upon gaining a new possession? Halachic authorities point out that the feeling of delight is first felt upon acquisition of a new item, even if its use is delayed to a later time; just knowing that we have a new possession at our disposal can cause a person a sense of contentment. Thus the blessing should be recited upon acquiring the new vessel; there is no need to wait until we use it. Strangely, common practice is to treat the sheheheyanu as optional and many do not recite it on all the occasions mandated by our sages (Rema OH 223:1). This may be because it is perceived as primarily for seasonal events, as the wording of the blessing implies: "...who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time." Reciting sheheheyanu over non-seasonal occurrences, such as new clothes, is seen as a secondary application and one that can be overlooked (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland). Some codifiers questioned the trend to neglect sheheheyanu over non-seasonal occasions, noting that the blessing was mandated by our sages and included in the Talmud, and therefore should not be ignored (Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland). Indeed, it is a shame to disregard the blessing, for reciting this benediction affords us the opportunity to acknowledge the Almighty's hand in our individual good fortune. We thank God for keeping us alive, for sustaining us and for bringing us to a time when we can enjoy the quality of life that our new acquisitions bring us. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.